Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Guest "Behind the Book" Blog: Rachel Griffiths on DEEP DOWN POPULAR

After about the 58th time I'd barged into Cheryl's office to gush about the so-adorable-that-I-can't-stop-patting-it DEEP DOWN POPULAR by Phoebe Stone, Cheryl sighed, put down the manuscript she'd been reading, and made me her best offer:

"Do you want to write a guest entry about DEEP DOWN POPULAR on my blog?"


Because although I doubt very much that I will stop barging* into Cheryl's office to gush about DEEP DOWN POPULAR (*and other things. As one of Cheryl's friends and colleagues, I reserve the right to barge), this is a book that deserves a much larger audience for gushing than just Cheryl (sorry, Cheryl).

WHAT a book to gush about. Although Phoebe is a published author, having written several picture books and novels for a major house, she sent in DEEP DOWN POPULAR as a manuscript to Arthur A. Levine Books as slush when I was working as Arthur's assistant. (Authors, do not do this. I am very glad Phoebe did, but a) she is a published author with a reputable house b) she has an agent. She had graduated from the slush pile, and I'm still not quite sure why she dove into it again.)

Anyway, I took the manuscript home over the weekend, and curled up with it on my couch, hoping that it would be so god-awful bad that I could read 50 pages of it, throw it against the wall, and go out with friends with a clean conscience.

But that didn't happen. Because after a page and a half, I was so in love with Jessie Lou, the main character, that going out with friends wasn't at all interesting. I was staying in with Jessie Lou, hearing all about her mad crush on fellow sixth-grader Conrad Parker Smith, hearing about her perfect older sister whose hair was always annoyingly poufy. And more, I was hearing about how it felt to be in your last year of elementary school with only a few on-again, off-again friends, and having to swallow the feeling of being different - and somehow wrong - every single day.

The book's plot was a bit wonky at the time, but Pfft! Plot is important, but plot questions can be solved. As an editor, I'm hooked when a book is beautifully written, when the characters are so vibrant and full of zip that I have to keep reminding myself that I don't ACTUALLY know them, when a manuscript is bursting with the thought and feeling that drive theme... Again, plot questions can be solved.

But the real clincher for me was the voice. Just listen to this:

"Getting all dressed up is about the worst thing in the world to me. I hate sticking my feet in party shoes or wearing ironed party dresses. I about have to scream. Same thing with my hair. Right before we went downtown last year to get a family photograph taken, I hauled off with a nice big old pair of scissors and cut my hair practically down to the bone. My older sister, Melinda, has beautiful hair and it was all curled for the photograph and she was wearing a fluffy pink perfect cloud of a dress, and here I was in love with Conrad Parker Smith with my hair so short, you couldn't spit on it."

Oh, Jessie Lou! Oh, what a prickly pear!

Arthur agreed. He took the book to Acquisitions, and we edited it together. And now it is out in stores, and I have a copy sitting on my desk well within patting range. And when a day gets challenging, I can move beyond patting and pick the book up to find the reasons I am an editor. Passages like these:

  • “There’s a fine line between a fourth grader and a baby and Quentin Duster just crossed that line."
  • "My see-you-later-when-I-feel-like-it-friend, Elizabeth Parnell, has moved up to a table in the middle of our class so she can sit with Sarah Jane Peabody, leaving me back here all alone, bubbling and fuming like a pot of Mama's half-burned stew."
  • "Conrad draws the best robots and space aliens of any boy in this class. And his space aliens aren't stiff and stupid-looking like some. His robots and space aliens always have faces full of expression and meaning."
  • "I don't know anymore what I think. I think the moon turned purple and fell out of the sky. That's what I think. I think the stars dropped from the universe and are clattering all over the roof above us sounding like rain. That's what I think. Everybody is smiling and acting normal, but nothing is normal."

Thank you for listening to my gushing. And happy reading.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. It is my dream to have an editor (or anyone) love my book this much.

  3. Hi there,
    This book sounds awesome.
    Here is a question...
    After reading the excerpts, I quickly googled the title to find out where I could buy a copy.
    When the book came up on the screen, the cover was totally different. I saw a pen and ink drawing with a boy and a girl standing in a countryish garden. It was quite old fashioned compared to the photo cover on this blog.
    My question is... "What happened in the editorial/sales/marketing departments to change the image?"
    I can sort of guess your answer, but I think it might be of interest to writers and illustrators.

  4. What happened was this: We wanted to do a cover that would get the book the biggest amount of traction, especially with Scholastic clubs and fairs (we felt like the book was perfect for them, but they had never taken anything by Phoebe before.) They have a wish list of illustrators, and the illustrator who did the image of the kids in the tulips had done another book with similar content that had done well for them before. So, in an effort to attract them, we commissioned the original kids in a field illustration.

    But then we took the book out to our bookstore accounts, and everyone HATED the cover. Our reps really liked the book and championed it, so they asked their accounts to read it before passing (because sometimes buyers don't). And the accounts actually loved the text.

    We weren't wedded to the original cover - we'd just done it in an effort to make the book that much more appealing to clubs and fairs. So we went back and forth with our accounts - especially with Borders - a few times. And finally we came up with a cover that everyone really loved - clubs and fairs included.

    And it ended up being the best thing for the book to have such a last-minute cover change - something that normally scares us. Because our sales reps, our bookstore accounts AND our clubs and fairs had all been much more involved in the process than usual. Everyone 1) had the book on their radar, which doesn't always happen, 2) had read the book, which doesn't always happen, and 3) felt a sense of investment in the final cover. We saw our orders shoot up after the redesign.

    I'm not a huge fan of designing by committee, but in this case I think the second cover is stronger, and the process got the book more of the attention it deserved. So it was one of those times when something bad - a cover that wasn't successful - turned into a really lucky moment.
    - Rachel

  5. Why is a published author with reputable houses(Houghton Mifflin, Philomel)not supposed to use the slush pile?
    I don't have an agent and don't know why I need one.

  6. I'll answer for Rachel: The admonition was less about unagented published authors using the slush pile (which happens all the time) than authors with agents using the slush pile. And even then, there's certainly no reason why agented authors *can't* use the slush pile -- we editors are just always surprised when they *do*, because A) Your agent is supposed to be doing that submissions work for you (otherwise, how are they earning that 15%?), B) slush is often a longer and more difficult road than having an agent submit the ms. (because agented submissions generally get read faster), and C) it confuses the situation for us -- if an agent submits the ms., we know where the lines are and what the expectations are, and in cases like this, it's less clear who's in charge and who our primary contact is. If you have this sort of relationship with your agent where you do the submitting, okay, fine, that's your business. We just quirk an eyebrow, as Rachel did here.

  7. I'm going SHOPPING! (God bless the kind person that thought up those Borders 20 percent off coupons!)

    I took the supernieces shopping for books and the twelve-year-old snagged TTFN and read it in two days..then she stole my copy of Lightning Thief

    My other niece chose the Spiderwick gift book with all the envelopes. She also stole my copy of MIllicent Min,

    So I'm ready for a good recommendations!

    Thanks Rachel!


  8. I don't have an agent right now, but when I did, she didn't take everything I wrote. Sometimes a project didn't work for her. The voice was wrong, or the topic, or whatever. And sometimes she shopped my manuscript to her favorite houses with no luck, then dropped them. A few of these unlucky-with-agent manuscripts were my favorites and projects "I" believed in. They were novels I'd worked a year on! Therefore, I had to do the extra work to sell them. Often the agent was bang-on and the manuscript still sits in my file cabinet today. But I did have some luck on my own with two. [And that beats the file cabinet.]
    Only the author of this book can tell you why she took the slush route for this project. So, chime in if you will ....

  9. What a cool post about a lovely sounding book. I was surprised, actually, to learn that the book clubs and fairs seem somewhat independent of your publishing arm. Does this mean that a book bought by Scholastic may, or may not, be offered in a Scholastic book fair? And wouldn't that hideously complicate acquisitions?

    Anyway, off topic. What I wanted to say was thank you berry much, Cheryl, for linking to Cai Guo-Qiang's images at the Guggenheim. His sculpture of stuffed wolves hurling themselves against a glass wall with but a tiny opening has stuck in my mind for days. I don't want to get all gobbledy or gooky, but there is A LOT going on in that piece, not to mention its strange, stark and even somewhat horrible beauty. I've never heard of this artist before, and I'm glad I have now.


  10. I was surprised to see that the clubs and fairs had such a strong say over the illustrator pick -- not just reacting to the art director and editor's choice but actually steering them in a certain direction from the get-go.

    Do others involved in the sales end of things have such a strong say at other houses?

  11. I was just going to leave a comment to thank Rachel for the recommendation and tell her that I bought the book today...but I also am very intrigued by the Scholastic book club/fair questions...

  12. I'm hesitant to go into Clubs & Fairs stuff because that's internal Scholastic business, and discussing internal business on a public blog is one of the stupidest things a blogger can do. But as our corporate report would show, yes, they are actually entirely separate publishing divisions from our Trade arm; and no, they do not take everything Trade publishes, because some of the stuff we publish just doesn't fit the market they serve (e.g. high-school-age YA -- there are no h.s. Clubs or Fairs). I can't speak to the role the Sales department plays in cover creation at other houses.

  13. You know, I am sure you mean no offense by this, but why couldn't you have taken the trouble to include the author's actual name on the books you are reading side bar? I feel for Ann Somebody. Not nice and it would have only taken a minute to be polite.

  14. Liked the book, like this personal backstory. ;-)

  15. To anonymous at 6:19...
    Your comment seems a bit odd since you did not take a few seconds to put your name to your post.
    E. Ball

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